Survivor: The Little Kids’ Party

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They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  They say a lot of things.

We made it, but it was tight, very tight, early 80’s jeans tight.  The kind of tight where eating is ill-advised and sitting down entirely out of the question.

Now anyone who’s had a baby knows that sleep is actually optional and that 5 hours is a veritable sleep in.  Unfortunately nobody told my cough that, so I’m back to hacking like a one woman TB clinic.

Plus I might have been a bit not very nice to my sainted husband sometime (continuously) between about 11pm  Friday and 2:30pm Saturday.  That would be about the same time that I swore never even to think about entering Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules, or any other cooking competition involving time challenges, ever.  (This in case I ever suffer a moment of sufficiently complete self-delusion to think I might be a contender.)

But it’s OK because the birthday girl loved her party and my husband, may he have many good wives, has forgiven me … again.

Was it all as planned?  Not entirely, but perhaps actually better.

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The Strawberry & Sprinkles Toadstool cake turned out fine, but a word to the wise:  if you’re going to bake a pink tinted cake, forget the sprinkles.  Only the blue and green ones show up and then you get these little white dots in the crust, all contributing to the overall impression of rampant bread mould.  The cake fairy ornaments went into hiding, but Lydia was too excited to notice.  I figure no harm, no foul.

We did the chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow flowers, even if the sparkly glitter didn’t quite show up quite as much as I would’ve liked.  I was short on time to make separate chocolate buttercream, so you’ll see I used the leftover from the toadstool instead.

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The cheese and tomato baby toadstool canape worked-ish.  They were a challenge to keep upright.  I should have piped the mayo spots on with a little zip-lock bag rather than dabbing manically with a pointy teaspoon handle, but overall they were still effective. Given free will, do small children eat tomatoes and cheese sticks? Not at all. So it’s probably just as well I canned the little crackers with lady birds made from tomatoes and olives.  The dog did quite well enough as it was.

Tomato and Cheese Toadstools

I also ran out of time to do the cheesey snail pastries and the sausage rolls.  By this I mean I could have done both if I’d used the emergency back up bought frozen sausage rolls and tried making the snails using pre-rolled puff pastry and grated parmesan.  Worse things have happened.  But the yeasty sausage rolls are a bit of a favourite.

They also say that necessity is the mother of invention.  Mostly I find myself thinking that necessity is just a real mother, but sometimes they get it right.  So we had yeasty snail-shaped sausage rolls.

The dough is quick to make and very, very forgiving.  You don’t need to let it rise.  Time having been exceeding short, the snails you see below represent a very rushed first attempt.  I have no doubt that, given an extra 15 minutes they could have been much prettier.  As it was, the results were not too shabby.

Snails before

Snails after uncropped

Now what do you do when you’ve managed to bake the cookies, but run out of time to do the fancy icing?  No worries. You now have a new party activity.  The children (and some of the adults) just loved this.

Make up two or three bowls of runny icing – icing sugar with a little boiling water from the kettle will do just fine.  Put out any leftover cake icing, rifle your pantry for sprinkles, cachous, jelly (jello) crystals and tubes of writing icing, stray candies and put it all out on the bench. Use plates or cold baking trays (cookie sheets) to accommodate the new creations, but remember that a high proportion of cookies will never make it that far.  Once the kids got bored, some of the parents had a go too.  Happy guests, happy Mummy and bonus: I’ve got this week’s tick for my commitment to weekly hands on cooking for the girls.

Little hands at work

Decorated Sugar Cookies

A couple of games of musical statues, afternoon tea and present opening, and it was pretty much over.  Family and very good friends stayed on.  We got take aways, kicked back and caught up.  Once we got all the little ones to bed, I curled up on the sofa in front of TV with the sainted husband, very tired, but good tired, and drifted off to sleep.

Did the kids like it? I’d say so.  Francesca has requested an identical party when she turns nine, so that’s one fan at least.

Lydia turns 5

In case you feel like trying the sausage roll snails, or anything else where you think yeast pastry would do nicely, here’s the recipe.  It has its genesis in a recipe from one of my favourite Russian/former Soviet cookbooks, Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.

This batch yielded enough dough for about 2 dozen snails and 40 odd more conventional rolls made by taking half a cheese kransky sausgage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and rolling it diagonally across a square of pastry about 5cm/2″ square.

Easy Yeast Dough

Ingredients:

2 1/3c milk

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp dried yeast

1c (225g or 2 sticks) butter (you can substitute vegetable oil in this dough, but for this I’d stick with the butter)

2 eggs

1 tsp salt

flour, preferably high grade/strong/bread flour between 6 and 8 cups (c. 750g to 1kg or 1 3/4 to 21/4 lb)

1kg or 2lb kransky, choritzo or similar thin smoked sausage

Note: If you prefer a shorter (less bready, richer) pastry, reduce the milk to 1 1/3c and increase the butter/oil to 2c (450g or 2 sticks).

Method:

1. Warm the milk until it is just blood temperature.  If you use the microwave be sure to stir  through before you check the temperature – sometimes you can miss a hot pocket and unwittingly end up milk which is too hot (kills your yeast), or which is hot at the surface, but really not very warm otherwise (yeast might not work very quickly).

2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar into the milk until dissolved.  Add the yeast.  Just sprinkle over the surface and let it re-hydrate, or, if like me you lack the patience and want to be sure to avoid dry yeasty lumps, whisk it in.  Let it stand until it fluffs up: now you know you are working with live yeast.

3. While the yeast is doing the fluffy thing, warm the butter until it is just melted (or be prepared to wait while it cools).  Beast into the fluffy yeast mix together with the eggs and salt.

4. Once blended, add the flour, starting in 2 cup lots, then after 6 cups have been added, in smaller quantities until you have a soft dough that comes away from the sides.  Start with a wooden spoon.  Once the mixture is getting close to forming a dough, knead by hand.

5. Turn it onto a lightly floured bench and knead briefly.  Use immediately or cover and let it rise for a little. Cut into three or four sections (depending on what you find manageable) and roll out into sheets somewhere between 3 and 5mm (1/8 and 2/8″) thick.

For snails:

6. Trim the bottom edge of the pastry sheet.  Line up kransky sausages about 2cm or 1″ in from the edge, keeping them close so that there is no gap between saugages.  Trim the sides of the pastry sheet in line with each end of the sausage line up. Roll the bottom edge of the dough up over the sausage and then keep rolling the lot until the dough has wrapped around the sausages twice.

7. Trim the top edge of the pastry so that you are left with about 4 to 5cm (1 1/2 to 2″) of unrolled pastry. This will form the body and head of each snail.  Slice the dough cross wise into 2cm or 3/4″ slices.  Fold some of the unrolled pastry back towards the rolled section and pinch on each side to make feelers.  Glaze with an egg yolk beaten with a little water if you like.  Bake at about 195 C or  385 F until golden brown.

For plain sausage rolls (pigs in blankets):

8. Take half a sausage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and roll it diagonally across a square of pastry about the same size as the length (so in this case about 5cm or 2″ square), wrapping the dough around the sausage piece as you go. Glaze and bake as above.

9. This dough can also be used to make pizza pinwheels for school lunches (roll out dough into a rectangle, spread with a layer of tomato paste, sprinkle with cheese and sliced ham or salami, roll up tightly swiss (jelly) roll style and cut into 1.25cm 1/2″ slices.  Arrange on a tray and backe as per 7. above), or to make piroshki – but for that we need a separate post.

Roast Resurrection or What to do with the Leftover Pork?

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There’s something very satisfying about cooking a hearty family roast dinner.

We’re talking the kind of meal that speaks of quiet tradition and familiarity. It’s casual, but I set the kitchen table with a cloth and my favourite plates, because these days we don’t have much time together and I want, in some small way, to mark the occasion.

We all squeeze around. The family sit close by as I put the finishing touches on each course. Our affectionate banter is built on in-jokes reaching back to those  present only in memory. The dishes often have the same provenance. No trendy ingredients. No clever cheffy garnishes. Just the tastes and smells of our collective past served up one more time to feed, to nurture and to remind us of good times in other kitchens and in other times.

Then there’s that thing that happens the next day, because if you’ve done it right, there is always, but always, too much food.

You open the fridge door and it looks back at you, cold and diminished. Even from under a layer of foil, your pork joint manages to exude attitude. The kind of unblinking, bleary-eyed, belligerent stare you get from the drunk at the back of the bar after you tell him you’re not interested. “Here I am.”, it says, “So what are you gonna do about it?”.

In New Zealand it’s autumn going on winter. Like a hungover debutante with a crushed dress and smeared mascara, cold pork has limited allure.

My grandmother would have minced the meat and used it to stuff crepes dumplings called pierogi in Poland and vareniki still further east.  But today I don’t have any cooking juices left and there’s nothing very appetising about either dish if the filling is dry and crumbly.

I cooked the pork with star anise instead of my granny’s preferred caraway seeds, so I’m looking for something with an Asian feel. Not strict authenticity, but a direction that will let me turn what’s already in the fridge into a tasty, interesting and relatively healthy weeknight dinner. The pork was roasted on a bed of apples, pears and onions. I decide that onion and apple will work well in a dumpling filling, adding both moisture and flavour.  The pear might be a bit too wet.  A quick google suggests there’s a lot of napa cabbage happening in the pot sticker department. I don’t have one handy, but decide that carrot and zucchini will do.  And while I’m at it, I might as well have a crack at a hot water dough too.

Call it beginners luck, but this one has earned it’s place in my recipe book:  my vegetable-averse firstborn asked for seconds, they were remarkably quick to make,  and the leftover dumplings made a good lunch. Boxes ticked. Happy mummy.

Here’s how:

Pork and Apple Pot Stickers

Filling

700g/1 1/2lb cooked pork, cut into coarse boneless dice

2 medium onions, finely diced

2 medium courgettes/zucchini

2 small carrots, peeled

2 small cooking apples (I used Granny Smiths)

4 plump cloves of garlic, crushed

3.5cm/1.5″ piece of ginger, minced or grated

2 whole star anise

vegetable oil

3 tbsp* soy sauce

sesame oil

Dumpling Dough

3c flour

boiling water

To Serve

black or Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce or other dipping sauce

Method

1. Put cook pork through the mincer or pulse in the food processor until finely ground.  Set aside.

2.Prepare the vegetables and apple.  Grate zucchini, carrots and apple, or cut into rough pieces (discarding the apple core) and pass through the mincer.  Set aside.

3. Heat about 1 tbsp of oil in a wide heavy skillet, add onions and whole star anise, sweat over moderate heat until the onions are wilted.  Add garlic and ginger, continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions until just starting to turn golden.

4. Add grated vegetables and apple.  Increase heat and fry until the moisture has evaporated (you want the filling to be moist, but not soggy).

5. Stir in the soy sauce, cook for a couple of minutes more sauce.  Taste:  you need enough salt to balance the sweetness of the vegetables.  Then sprinkle a little sesame oil.  You want enough just to add the merest hint.  Go in small increments.  You can always add a little more.

6. Remove the star anise then add the vegetable mixture to the ground pork.  Mix thoroughly. Taste and check seasonings. Rinse out your skillet ready for cooking the pot stickers.

7. Next make the dough. Measure the flour into a good-sized heat proof mixing bowl (c. 4 litres/quarts). Add enough boiling water  to bring together a soft dough. As with the sesame oil, it’s easier to add more than to take it away, so add about a cup and then small amounts until the dough comes together.  It doesn’t take long.

8.  Sprinkle your work-surface with flour, and knead the dough until it’s smooth.  Divide into 3 even portions, roll each portion into a 30cm/12″ sausage and cut into pieces the size of a small walnut.

Mine were a bit big and as a result the dumplings were quite large.  Not so bad with a cooked filling, but if you had raw ingredients you might want to make sure they were a little smaller.)

9. Roll each portion out into a 6.5cm/2.5″ circle. (Ideal job for the kids.)  Holding the circle in the palm of your hand, put a tablespoon of filling in the centre.  Fold over the dough, pinch the edges together, taking care to seal the whole semicircle. Line them up on a lightly floured board or tray ready for cooking.  They should rest on their backs – the straight side of the semicircle.  Plump them down so that there is a flat surface for them to sit on.

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10.  When they are all done (or you have enough for a pan load), heat the pan again.  If you have more filling and dough, you can keep filling more dumplings while the first set are cooking.  Add about a tablespoon of oil to the pan.  Arrange the dumplings over the surface of the pan so that there is just a small gap between each one.

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11. Cook over moderate heat until the dumplings are golden brown on the underside.  (I like them fried a little more, so I let them cook on each side of the dumpling too, but this is not traditional as far as I can make out.)  Then add about 1/2 cup of water to the pan, cover it and let the dumplings cook until all the water is absorbed.  (About enough time to make yourself some green tea.)  If you don’t have a lid big enough for your pan, try covering with a baking /cookie sheet.  Your dumplings are now ready to serve.

The hyperobservant might have noticed in the second picture that one of the dumplings has a hole in it.  (Up near the red flour scoop) Either I rolled the dough to thin or stretched it a bit much getting it around the filling.   I dealt with that by lying the dumpling directly on the hole rather than the flat bottom when they first went into the pan (lower centre dumpling above), so that it formed it’s own crust and resealed.  Successful rescue.

*Australians please note my tablespoons are 15 not 20ml.

Pot Stickers